My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933by Sarah Greenough
There are few couples in the history of 20th-century American art and culture more prominent than Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986) and Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946). Between 1915, when they first began to write to each other, and 1946, when Stieglitz died, O'Keeffe and Stieglitz exchanged over 5,000 letters (more than 25,000 pages) that describe their daily lives in profoundly rich detail. This long-awaited volume features some 650 letters, carefully selected and annotated by leading photography scholar Sarah Greenough.
In O'Keeffe's sparse and vibrant style and Stieglitz's fervent and lyrical manner, the letters describe how they met and fell in love in the 1910s; how they carved out a life together in the 1920s; how their relationship nearly collapsed during the early years of the Depression; and how it was reconstructed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. At the same time, the correspondence reveals the creative evolution of their art and ideas; their friendships with many of the most influential figures in early American modernism (Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Paul Strand, to name a few); and their relationships and conversations with an exceptionally wide range of key figures in American and European art and culture (including Duncan Phillips, Diego Rivera, D. H. Lawrence, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Marcel Duchamp). Furthermore, their often poignant prose reveals insights into the impact of larger cultural forces—World Wars I and II; the booming economy of the 1920s; and the Depression of the 1930s—on two articulate, creative individuals.
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My Faraway OneSelected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz VOLUME 1, 19151933
Yale University PressCopyright © 2011 Sarah Greenough
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAll the World Greets You 19151918
Soon after Georgia O'Keeffe arrived in South Carolina in the fall of 1915, she reached a critical juncture in the evolution of her art. Rejecting all her earlier work, she realized she could not "spend my life doing what had already been done," and she embarked on a series of abstract charcoal drawings. These pieces reveal her study of Japanese art and art nouveau, as well as the ideas of the Russian Wassily Kandinsky and the Americans Arthur Wesley Dow, Marsden Hartley, and Arthur Dove, though her drawings were also highly inventive. Eager for critical reaction, she sent some to her New York art school friend Anita Pollitzer. Although Pollitzer understood O'Keeffe's ambivalence about sharing her art with others, she also knew her friend wanted Alfred Stieglitz's approval more than that of anyone else. She took the drawings to Stieglitz's gallery 291 on January 1, 1916, the legendary photographer's fifty-second birthday. As Pollitzer excitedly reported, Stieglitz asked her to tell O'Keeffe that her drawings "were the purest, fairest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while," adding, "I wouldn't mind showing them in one of these rooms one bitperhaps I shall."
Buoyed by Stieglitz's praise"it just made me ridiculously glad," she told Pollitzer and frustrated with her current teaching position"I was never so disgusted with such a lot of people"O'Keeffe quit her job in South Carolina. After borrowing two hundred dollars, she returned to New York in March 1916 and enrolled in Dow's methods course at Columbia University Teachers College, a requirement if she was to assume the position she had been offered by West Texas State Normal College in Canyon, Texas, later that fall. While in New York, she renewed friendships, spent time with her beau Arthur Macmahon, and went to 291. Over the next two months, Stieglitz challenged and captivated O'Keeffe, as he did so many other visitors to his gallery. She was overwhelmed when she and Macmahon saw Hartley's April exhibition at 291 of forty large abstract paintings made in Germany, which she later described as "a brass band in a small closet." She was "startled" when Stieglitz lent her one of Hartley's earliest paintings, Dark Landscape (1909), to take home to study. And she was even more stunned and disconcerted when Stieglitz told her that he wanted to exhibit her drawings in May. O'Keeffe abruptly left New York on May 2 after learning that her fifty-two-year-old mother, Ida, who suffered from tuberculosis, had died in Charlottesville. She returned to New York in time to see her first exhibition, which Stieglitz opened at 291 on May 23, 1916, but left soon thereafter to teach, once again, at the University of Virginia summer school.
Dear Mr. Stieglitz
Yesterday I had a long letter from littlebig hearted Anita Pollitzer. She asked me if I had received the June number of 291 that she had written you to send me
It came today and it pleases me so much that I must just write and tell you about it.
I am the young woman who was so glad to see John Marin make the world go crazyYou gave me a 291 number of Camera Work and I can't begin to tell you how much I've liked itI always want it where I can see it in my roomI like it for things it makes me think of.
Mr. StieglitzI want to subscribe to 291 and I want numbers two and three if you have any left.
If you will send number four toArthur W. MacmahonColumbia University, N.Y. I will thank you
Sincerely, Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O'Keeffe [Columbia, South Carolina] [early January 1916]
If you remember for a weekwhy you liked my charcoals that Anita Pollitzer showed youand what they said to youI would like to know if you want to tell me.
I don't mind askingyou can do as you please about answering.Of course I know you will do as you please
I make themjust to express myselfthings I feel and want to sayhaven't words forYou probably know without my saying itthat I ask because I wonder if I got over to anyone what I want to say.
Alfred Stieglitz 291 Fifth Avenue, New York January 20, 1916
My dear Miss O'Keeffe:
What am I to say? It is impossible for me to put into words what I saw and felt in your drawings. As a matter of fact I would not make any attempt to do so. I might give you what I received from them if you and I were to meet and talk about life. Possibly then through such conversation I might make you feel what your drawings gave me.
I do want to tell you that they gave me much joy. They were a real surprise and above all I felt that they were a genuine expression of yourself. I do not know what you had in your mind while doing them. But I do feel that they have brought you closer to me. Much closer. If at all possible I would like to show them, but we will see about that. I do not quite know where I am at just at present. The future is rather hazy, but the present is very positive and very delightful.
With greetings, Cordially, Alfred Stieglitz
Georgia O'Keeffe [Columbia, South Carolina] [February 1, 1916]
I like what you write meMaybeI don't get exactly your meaningbut I like mine like you liked your interpretation of my drawings.
It was such a surprise to me that you saw themand I am so glad they surprised you that they gave you joy. I am glad I could give you once what 291 has given me many times.
You can't imagine how it all astonishes me.
I have been just trying to express myselfI just have to say things you knowWords and Iare not good friends at all except with some peoplewhen I'm close to them and can feel as well as hear their responseI have to say it some wayLast year I went color madbut I've almost hated to think of color since the fall wentI've been slaving on the violintrying to make that talkI wish I could tell you some of the things I've wanted to say as I felt them.
The drawings don't countit's the lifethat really countsTo say things that way may be a reliefIt may be interesting to see how different people react to them.I am glad they said something to you.I think so much alonework aloneam so much alonebut for lettersthat I am not always sure that I'm thinking straightIt's greatI like itThe outdoors is wonderfuland I'm just now having time to think things I should have thought long agoThe uncertain feeling thatsome of my ideas may be near insanityadds to the fun of itand the prospect of really talking to live human beings againsometime in the future is great.Hibernating in South Carolina is an experience that I would not advise anyone to missThe place is of so little consequenceexcept for the outdoorsthat one has a chance to give one's mind, time, and attention to anything one wishes.
I can't tell you how sorry I am that I can't talk to youwhat I've been thinking surprises me sohas been such funat times has hurt toothat it would be great to tell you
Some of the fields are greenvery very greenalmost unbelievably green against the dark of the pine woodsand it's warmthe air feels warm and softand lovely I wonder if Marin's Woolworth has spring fever again this yearI hope it has
Sincerely Georgia O'Keeffe.
I put this in the envelopestretchedand laughed
It's so funny that I should just write you because I want toI wonder if many people do.
You seeI would go in and talk to you if I couldand I hate to be completely outdone by a little thing like distance
Georgia O'Keeffe [En route from New York City to Charlottesville, Virginia] [May 3, 1916]
I am on the train on the way to Virginia
I don't know why I have thought so often and so much about you at this particular timebut I haveI got a telegram this afternoon saying my mother is dead
If you were here and asked me questionsabout itor about anything elseI would probably give very queer answers. I feel queerI don't seem to know anything
butI do know that when I get there tomorrow morningI must even forget she is dead
It seems as though I must build
I don't know anything nowI'll only know step by step as I come to itYou must not feel sorry for meI am only going down because I can probably make things easier for some others
but I wish you would write menot that you are sorryor any of that truckJust talk to me
If you want toNot if you don't want to.
Last Saturday morning when I waked up the first thing I saw was the Hartleyand it startled meI was through with it all in a minuteI got up right quick and turned it to the wall. I have wanted to take it down to you every day since but didn't have time till today. Thank you so much for it.
I rode home on the bus after taking the picture in to you. It was a wonderful day
Then the telegram was there
Some way it still seems to be a wonderful day
University, Va.12:15 in the night
Alfred Stieglitz [New York City] May 6, 1916
For two days I carried a letter in my pocketa letter stamped & sealed ready to mail. Why did I finally tear it up? It was addressed to you. I wrote to you as soon as I had heard from you.
It seems impossible for me these days to find words for anythingperhaps because I'm dead myself. And words, just words, are so terrible. Rather by far a living aching silence.
Your mother.Was she very close to you?You to her?I hope so for there can be nothing quite so wonderful. And if this was so, how you must suffer now. In silence. Heroically. No one to knownot even self.
I have been on jury dutystill amthat's why I didn't see you when you returned the Hartley.Had I known how to get at you in the city I would have written or phoned. Also to tell you why your drawings were not yet up on the walls. I didn't want them up while I had to be away so much. I wanted to hang them primarily for myselffor my own enjoyment. Jury call came unexpectedly.
It is a summer day today.291 has been like a tomb all dayeven the phone has been silentwithout a sound.
Let me hear from youIf you are near trees send me some of their spirit. Trees & Water!
291 sends you greetings.
Georgia O'Keeffe [New York City] [May 8, 1916]
I came back yesterdayOf course there is no reason why I should tell youexcept that I want to
I've slept ever since I got hereexcept that I got up and ate once in awhileand it seems as if I could go on sleeping always
I feel as if I'll not want to go down to see you for a long timebut maybe I willcan't tell.
If you put my things up let me knowI might like to see them firstand again I might notI don't knowMorningside 5271 is my phone.
Georgia O'Keeffe [New York City] [May 21, 1916]
I am writing you because I am afraid to go to sleepand after I've told someone I'll not be so much afraidor at leastI hope I won't
Last night I dreamedA very bad dream about Mamaand I thought my hands were on her face. I know the shape of it so well because I've rubbed her head so much and felt her face so oftenNo, not latelyit's just something I've always known
Her temples I can always feel with my thumb
I would make my dreambut I know I couldn't stand it to stay in the same building with it overnight
I went out to dinnerandsupperI've talked and argued and laughed all dayI've been in a very good humorI am sure no one would ever have imagined that I would be afraid to go to sleep tonightI've had a very good time all day
isn't it absurd that I am afraid now.
I saw you at the Metropolitan this afternoonYou were looking at the Winslow HomerI was looking at the people. You didn't turn.
You are a funny man. I put my hat on and got to my door one day this week to tell you something that seemed worse to me thenthan my mother being gonebut I turned back and saw a picture I had madeandI thoughtNoSothe next day I wentwhen I had cooled off someI didn't tell youbecausewellI didn't need to thenand anywayI couldn't have told the otherstooThe reason I say you are funny is because you seemed to be hunting around that day for something to bother youYou had even tried to get the doctor to find something wrong with you
and I had so much that was realthatwhymy brain simply wouldn't work.
I knew when I went down that I wasn't going to tell you but everything seemed so queer to meI wondered why people laughedI had caught myself stopping and looking at them two or three times when I heard themwondering how it felthow it would be to feel like that againdid they know the other thingsI couldn't do anything so I went down to see you for curiosityI wondered what you looked like
I ate lunch with Anita the day beforethe day I thought I had to tell someone and started to tell youShe seemed like such a pretty little girlI couldn't tell her. When I saw youyou were trying to find something wrong with yourself
You don't mindif I tell you that every time I have thought of it sinceI have laughed. It seems so funnyand I laugh tooat the way I stood around thereseeming about as stupid as people are made. I guess I enjoyed being stupid that morningI frequently do.
After I left it quite amused me to think what a fool I am
But I didn't care that day
And this is another day.
291 is a very nice place
Maybe I can sleep now
Goodnightthank you for letting me feel I can talk to you.
[May 28, 1916]
I wrote this last Sunday night and found it in my desk tonight.
I've been sicktonsillitisin bedfor four dayscan't come to lifecan't care about anything
Living great? Why yes
The emptiness of the space ahead is appallingIt seems so empty that I don't want to move into itthinking of it makes me feel I cannot stand it
But I know I canonly I hate to take the first step
I'd almost rather just stay in bed and have tonsillitis.
The space ahead is the summer and the winterand the summer and the winter again as I have planned themand it's all empty
[June 3, 1916]
Here it is
Written last Sunday nightand the Sunday beforeI would tell you why I went down today but my head aches so I can't
The part of me that the doctor can't get at is very much sicker than the rest of me
Alfred Stieglitz [New York City] [June 8, 1916]
Here is a letter for you.It came last night.
So you have found your balance. And the cause absurd.Isn't everything that brings about a balance of within with without usually an "absurdity"?
I wonder if you know who Leo Stein is. He saw your work this morning & it interested him immensely as it continues to interest me immensely.
You said you were going to make a new drawingDid you?I'm curious to see it. Perhaps you've forgotten all about the intentionor momentary desire.
So you stood behind me as I was looking at the Winslow Homer!Amusing. I never see the people when I'm at the Museumnor do I see much of the picturesWhy do I go there?I only go two or three times a year& always come out full of resentmentconscious of only what might be so readily were there just a little less stupidity at the head of institutions like our Museum.
It's young I know. That's why I hate to see it waste its opportunities.
Will you tell me about the sister.
Hasn't the rain been penetratingly wet these two days?
Georgia O'Keeffe [Charlottesville, Virginia] [June 22, 1916]
What's it like here?
Treesoak treesso big and dark and green that they almost smother me
Early one morningit was SundayI walked away from it because they smother me soand I saw some smaller trees and bigger open spacesfields white with daisiesmountains
I used to think it beautifulbut it isn't now
My work means meeting many people that I knowpeople who have known me as something very liveI didn't know how little alive I feel till in their many greetings this morning I felt what response was expected of me.
Of them allthere was only one I was glad to seeand he had the bad taste to bring his wife along this yearI've never seen her so don't know yet whether he is any good anymore or notI think he said two children too.
Excerpted from My Faraway One Copyright © 2011 by Sarah Greenough. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Sarah Greenough is senior curator and head of the department of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. She is the author of Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set and many other critically acclaimed books on modern photography.
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